Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Understanding the Arab mind

Below is an excerpt from a long review and synthesis of two books by Egyptian author Tarek Heggy.  The books concerned are "The Arab Cocoon" and "The Arab Mind Bound".  I think the analysis concerned gets a lot right but overlooks the effects of Western Leftism. Leftist critiques of Western society have been joyously seized on by Islamists to reinforce their promotion of Islam and denigration of Western culture.  Muslim hostility to the West is partly powered by the constant Leftist portrayal of the West as evil.  Leftists have a lot to answer for

Efforts to explain the region’s seemingly intractable resistance to progress and development, many of which blame America, the West, and Israel for the Mideast’s problems, have yielded an immense literature. Heggy’s answer sets his books apart.  He dispenses with the familiar tropes:  No, U.S. foreign policy and the existence of Israel are not the primary reasons for Mideast malaise.  Nor does he blame European colonialism, the global capitalist system, or the league of autocratic rulers who clung (and in places, continue to cling) to power thanks to oil revenues or outside military aid.  Instead, Heggy draws on his cosmopolitan background, long experience in the region as a businessman, and discussions with public intellectuals of every persuasion to offer a profound critique of the Arab mind.

As the titles of Heggy’s books suggest, the root cause of the region’s endemic problems is not something outside of it; the problem is the region’s culture, a concatenation of insular beliefs and habits of mind nurtured and sustained by forces particular to the Arab world.  The mindset Heggy describes prevents those affected by it from adopting the aspects of Western civilization that make progress possible.  When Heggy uses the word “progress,” he has in mind a kind of updated, twenty-first century, Kantian Enlightenment conception of the term.  He places high emphasis on respect for individual rights, government according to the principle of consent that is also limited in its scope, widespread public confidence in the power of human reason to drive the sciences forward, the celebration of creativity and art, a tolerant civil sphere, gender equality, free markets, non-sectarian public administration, and the utilization of modern management techniques.[5]  The fact that the West, today, protects and cultivates these things to a historically unusual extent makes it worthy of emulation.[6]

The Arab Mind Bound, is by far the superior volume.  Its central contention–that a brand of medieval Islam long relegated to the Arabian Peninsula is resurgent to a crippling effect today–is an insight truly pregnant with significance.

Heggy’s honest exploration of the region’s “backwardness” (a term he uses freely) takes him into terrain few commentators dare tread:  Islam–or to be precise, a literalist and politicized manner of interpreting Islam–is an important, probably the most important, contributor to the Arab predicament.  Almost as dangerous, he challenges the comfortable assumptions of Western bien-pensants.  No, not all cultures are equal.  Yes, cultures can be judged; and yes, the political regimes of the West (though flawed to be sure) are superior to the alternatives, especially those being tried in the Arab-Islamic world today.

The core of Heggy’s most important contention is encapsulated by a metaphor he puts forth in The Arab Mind Bound.  Arab culture is “shackled with two heavy chains”:  attached to one is the species of Islam promulgated by Saudi Wahhabis and to a lesser extent, the Muslim Brotherhood; attached to the other is a dysfunctional educational system that perpetuates the “defective thought processes, intellectual distortions and negative delusions” that yield endemic stagnation in every sphere.[7]

It follows that no attempt to address the myriad political and economic problems facing the Arab-Islamic world will be successful absent cultural–and thus, educational–reform; but as Heggy demonstrates, there are institutional and ideational obstacles in the way of both.  The very forces responsible for promulgating the most rigidly insular brands of Islam have, over the course of decades, wrested control of schools and universities from liberally inclined modernizers.

By the end of the books–especially in light of the failure of the Arab Spring–readers are left profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of meaningful cultural reform in the short term.  All roads lead back to the university, the school, the mosque and the public intellectual; and the same pre-modern ideas have infiltrated, captured, and corrupted all four.

Heggy is not the first to suggest a binding of mind is the root cause of the region’s problems, nor is the problem without historical precedent or roots.  Others, notably Robert Reilly in his book, The Closing of the Muslim Mind, have traced the genealogy of this cultural “suicide” (Reilly’s term) to intellectual developments that began to ossify Islamic jurisprudence, philosophy, and theology a millennium ago.[8]

Heggy does the same, effectively, though in much less detail, recounting a story that begins with an eleventh century disagreement between a theologian and Islam’s great medieval philosophers.  In a work called The Incoherence of the Philosophers, al-Ghazali argued that the understanding of nature and God put forth by Greek philosophy was incompatible with Islam’s account of the cosmos, according to which an omnipotent and willful God created the universe.  Contemporary accounts of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (alive and thriving at the time thanks to the popularity of al-Farabi and Avicenna) posited an eternal universe knowable to rational human beings. Al-Ghazali’s argument, bound tightly to Islamic scripture, purported to refute the Greek view, root and branch, in order to preserve the conception of God put forth in the Koran.

Averroes, one of the greatest contributors to medieval thought, tried to preserve the gifts of the Hellenistic world from al-Ghazali’s assault.  He argued that the Divine Law endorses philosophy, that reason and revelation are compatible in Islam.  Thus, he insisted that the human intellect is properly turned to, and can profitably investigate, the wider world and the claims of scripture (giving allegorical interpretation to those which fail to withstand rational scrutiny).

Al-Ghazali’s understanding won out in the East to devastating effect (though Averroes helped save the legacy of Athens for the West).[9]  Philosophy –man’s investigation of nature, the human good, the best political regime, etc. by his reason– was discouraged in the Arabic-speaking world in favor of a dogmatic adherence to sacred texts for answers to metaphysical as well as political questions.

Other thinkers achieved a similar feat in the juridical sphere.  Ibn Taymiyyah, and much later, Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, argued that an upright Islamic community willingly tethers itself to Islamic law as derived from the Koran, the Sunna, and the consensus of Muhammad’s companions, which effectively erased generations of Islamic commentary (some of it modernizing).[10]  On this understanding, there is no place for democratic lawmaking.  Just laws instantiate the revealed will of God–the only legitimate source of legislative authority–and should therefore be enforced by the community’s temporal authority through the penal code.

Since the juridical interpretation of scripture was completed centuries ago, the political community is effectively bound to pre-modern legal codes and legal reasoning (for its own good).  On this understanding, modern inventions like the separation of church and state are forbidden; so, too, is the creation of positive law by deliberative legislatures responsible to, and selected by, the people.  To do either is tantamount to the usurpation of divine authority by human beings.

Returning the discussion to the Arab world’s present predicament, it is not hard to see why a political community dominated by these assumptions would have trouble making “progress” or embracing political systems devoted to instantiating the principles of political liberalism.  Heggy puts it bluntly:  Al-Ghazali’s victory is the reason “Arabs have become spectators rather participants on the stage of life.”[11]

Contra Reilly, however, Heggy makes the case that the anti-rational, “rigid and medieval,” model of Islam was, for much of history, a “marginal and ineffectual” heterodox view of a small minority–the isolated Bedouins living on the Arabian Peninsula.[12]  Until the mid-point of the twentieth century, what Heggy calls the “Turkish-Egyptian model of Islam”–a manner of practice that “adopted an enlightened approach to religion”–seemed destined to prevail in the Arab world.[13]

Signs of progress were everywhere.  Led by Ataturk, Turkish republicans had opted to emulate the West, turning their back on their Ottoman-Islamic past in favor of a secular society along European lines; under the Shah, Iran appeared to be following suit; Beirut and Cairo were thriving intellectual centers; Arab universities were providing an increasingly liberal education to an emergent middle class; and minorities were for the most part reasonably well treated.

At the same time, however, twentieth century Islamists were quietly working to rehabilitate, radicalize, and spread the inward-looking “Bedouin model.”  The most important among them are becoming familiar names, even in the West, as scholars and political commentators try to understand the resurgence of a radicalized Islam that has impacted communities from North Africa through to Pakistan.

For Heggy, Sayyid Qutb exemplifies the twentieth century Islamist intellectual.[14]  Qutb was an influential Egyptian member of the Muslim Brotherhood midcentury, ultimately put to death by President Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966.  His thought further politicized the Brotherhood by welding Wahhabi ideas to the Brotherhood’s brand of political Islam in Egypt;[15] this caused a number of violent organizations, including Hamas, to splinter from it.  In addition to his calls to establish an Islamic government, Qutb popularized an idea that lies at the heart of al-Qa’ida’s ideology.  The Muslim world, on his account, had fallen into a condition of widespread ignorance (jahiliyya) reminiscent of what Muhammad faced in Arabia.  In order for Islam to spread freely, the obstacles in its way–insufficiently Islamic rulers, Israel, the United States, etc.–must be driven out of the region, by violent jihad where necessary.

Of course, Qutb and those like him ground their arguments in the Koran and the hadiths in an attempt to coopt their tremendous authority.  Heggy acknowledges that this rigid, and sometimes violent, manner of interpreting Islam has deep roots, having emerged over centuries from the hard, arid, and isolated tribal life of the peninsula.  He insists, however, that Islamic scripture does not mandate the Bedouin model; rather, the Bedouin model is a reflection of the geographic and sociological conditions under which it emerged–the arid desert plains of the peninsula.[16]

On Heggy’s account, the peninsula’s puritanical understanding of Islam’s tenets spread throughout the world to create a ruinous mindset, one that suffuses almost every aspect of social and political life. Heggy describes the resultant “Arab mentality” as “a mixture of emotions, excitability and confused thinking, characterized by an overwrought imagination that is totally divorced from reality, rooted in the past, and based on sectarian or ideological considerations.”[17]

While Heggy is careful to note, even to insist, that Islam is not a monolith, he often describes the mentality that binds the Arab mind as though it is today almost ubiquitous.  Widespread anti-Western prejudice leads to a Pavlovian rejection of anything resembling a marketplace of ideas and, thus, intellectual stagnation across the scientific disciplines persists; an inclination to excessive self-praise rooted in distant glories (and with it, an incapacity for self-criticism) undermines the toleration of diversity and runs contrary to respect for minority rights; the paranoid fear that Western culture will destroy Arab identity if any of its dominant features are embraced makes compromise by Islamists with Western actors difficult; public apathy inspired by the account of God as an all-powerful and willful being (and the parallel depreciation of the individual as capacious agent) has crippled efforts at democratic reform where they have been tried.[18]  Heggy’s list is a long one.

The dissemination of this new brand of Islam was not inevitable. The better part of The Arab Mind Bound is devoted to explaining why the Bedouin model of Islam has spread, and to cataloguing its long list of pernicious effects.  This is one of the greatest contributions of either book; and it is here that one finds a more nuanced discussion of the respects in which Western actions have contributed to the Arab predicament.

The factors Heggy identifies are wide-ranging, though most of them are recent by historical standards.  The binding of the wider Arab mind begins, for Heggy, around World War I; its aftermath (in particular, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and the English occupation of Egypt) dealt a first, though very survivable, blow to the emerging “Turkish-Egyptian” approach by humiliating at an instant those whose identity was tied up with Islam.[19]

The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 to fill that space, a deliberate response to Ataturk’s abolition of the Caliphate; its express aim was to Islamize Egyptian culture such that political reform–ultimately the reestablishment of the Caliphate–might follow in time.  The legacy of colonialism and the steady influx of Jewish migrants into neighboring Palestine helped the Brotherhood’s message to resonate with ordinary Egyptians.

Under the pressure of religious oppression, as Brotherhood leaders suffered and collaborated in Nasser’s prisons, the organization’s ideas grew more radical.[20]  The Israel-Palestine problem that emerged in the ensuing decades, and especially the humiliation of 1967, helped to increase the appeal of politicized religious rhetoric by demolishing at an instant the promise and appeal of Arab nationalism (a more or less secular ideology).

The same events helped the “Wahhabi influence to infiltrate al-Azhar,” as Gulf money spread Wahhabi ideas throughout the Middle East and Africa.[21]  The utter failure of socialist movements in the region, most of which quickly morphed into the brutal military dictatorships that persisted into the twenty-first century, further undermined the appeal of Europe’s political ideas.

So too, the pervasive lack of economic opportunity in Egypt today, in the context of widespread corruption, helps Islamist criticisms of the state and its broader agenda to resonate.

Heggy is right to locate the root of the Mideast’s predicament in the Arab mind; and he is right to admire the political regimes of the North Atlantic states.  His books make an important and timely argument for cultural reform with force and eloquence. Indeed, the region’s prospects for a better future depend on the cultural and educational reforms public intellectuals like Heggy are working to catalyze.  What he does not convey is equally important, however; for the very regimes he would have Arab states emulate were not built by elections and constitutional reforms alone.  They were built for and upon peoples of a peculiar temperament, themselves the product of deliberate cultural reforms dating back centuries.


There is a  new  lot of postings by Chris Brand just up -- on his usual vastly "incorrect" themes of race, genes, IQ etc.


For more blog postings from me, see  TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, GREENIE WATCH,  POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, AUSTRALIAN POLITICS, and Paralipomena (Occasionally updated) and Coral reef compendium. (Updated as news items come in).  GUN WATCH is now mainly put together by Dean Weingarten. I also put up occasional updates on my Personal blog and each day I gather together my most substantial current writings on A WESTERN HEART.

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